September 8, 2016

TO BE YOUNG, IDEALISTIC, AND READY TO TEACH...on the week of September 11, 2001


Sometimes I hardly recognize myself in this picture in my very first classroom, setting up just a few days before school started. During my very first week I got the privilege of meeting some of the most brilliant and resilient people on the planet (Harlem 5th graders), learned the power of setting up routines right from the start, and one morning, was terrified to find out that our country was under attack as I was teaching.

Although my students and I were several miles north of the World Trade Center (WTC), the destruction was so bad that we could see and smell the fumes in our neighborhood. Prior to that, the first sign that sometime was wrong was when my students started disappearing from class, with the main office making announcements over the loud speakers for certain children to pack their things and come to the main office. Nobody told me a thing. It wasn't until I had a break that I met my colleagues in the teachers lounge, watching the unbelievable footage on the TV with them (the parents who were home knew what happened before us, so they rushed to the schools to get their children, hence my students disappearing), the incredible realization that this was real, the anxiety of wondering if any of our loved ones or students' parents went to work at WTC that day, and later, the surreal experience of seeing military tanks roll down the streets of Harlem, of no landline OR cell phone reception to let people know we were ok, of isolation because all bridges and tunnels leading in and out of Manhattan island were shut down, of awe at the people who managed to walk home from the site of the carnage, many of them arriving in uptown barefoot, sweaty, faces and clothes sooty with smoke and dust and ash.

And all that young woman in the picture had expected to do that week was teach.

To teach her very first week of school, in her very own classroom, that she had so carefully prepared with great enthusiasm, a bit of nervousness, and a lot of dedication. She wanted to make a difference in children's lives by being where they are most of the time - in public schools.

Of course, that didn't happen as I planned, at least not in the beginning. Schools and basically the whole city were shut down, although I was the one who received a lesson, as I saw how Harlemites were still able to persevere, sharing resources, household supplies, stories, and comfort in the days that followed. We were in the midsts of our generation's Pearl Harbor, but I was fully in the present, or more accurately, in shell shock, like being suspended in time, because I still couldn't believe what took place yesterday, let alone imagine what the future held. By now, I had found out that some people in our school community had indeed lost loved ones, and I felt powerless because I had no means of communicating with them until we got back to school - and who knew when that would occur.

When school did resume, it wasn't long before we experienced another terror threat. As I was teaching one day, after the dust had settled (literally), when someone in a gas mask and what looked like HazMat gear bust into my classroom yelling at me and my students, telling us that we had to evacuate NOW! I gathered my students, and did what I was told, rushing them out of the room, having no clue who this person was or what was going on, but all the while doing my best to somehow reassure nearly 30 ten-year-olds that everything would be okay, although I wished I had someone to reassure me.

Turns out, it was an anthrax scare. The children were allowed to leave, but I and the other teachers were in virtually quarantined inside the building. This did not sit well with us or our union. In any case, it turned out that the scare was unfounded, but some understood why such extreme precautions had to be taken, just in case. Yet, I don't recall feeling insecure after that as much as even more determined to give 110% to my students, who after all, had just lost one of there role models (singer Aaliyah) during the summer before school started, and then lived though a terror attack on a our city less than a week into the school year, and now couldn't even relax in the classroom without being prepared to evacuated due to another emergency at any moment.

Suffice it say, it was a memorable start to my career!

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